Iceland got a new justice minister this month, after a dramatic ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found former justice minister Sigríður Á. Andersen had illegally appointed judges to the Icelandic Court of Appeals. The finding casts into question every decision made by the court since its inception in January 2018.
The court’s troubled history can be traced back to a decision Sigríður made the previous year. A special evaluation committee had been set up to select the top 15 candidates to be appointed to the court for life.
The motivation behind setting up a dedicated appellate court was freeing up the valuable time of the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court, to deal with only the gravest and most crucial matters of legal dispute, rather than re-hearing so many individual cases from the lower courts.
Told you so
The committee provided a well-vetted list of 15 names, but Sigríður removed four names from the list and provided four of her own nominations, before using the government majority in parliament to swiftly pass the appointments into law. Opposition MPs at the time (full disclosure: the author of this article was one of those MPs) pointed out that at the very least Sigríður had broken with procedure by providing parliament with an unalterable roster of candidates, rather than holding a vote on each candidate. The ECHR has since agreed.
The government at the time dismissed these and other concerns over the appointments and decided to move forward. Two of the four judges, who were omitted from Sigríður’s list, were awarded compensation by the Supreme Court, which found that the minister had indeed broken with procedure. Yet all 15 judges remained in place and continued to hear cases for over a year.
Predictably, one of the cases they heard resulted in a ruling against a defendant who decided to try his luck by appealing all the way to Strasbourg. Those rascally Europeans refused to dismiss the case, despite pleading from the (now slightly modified) Icelandic coalition government that insisted it was a waste of time and no one did anything wrong.
In mid-March of this year the ruling came in and the game was up. The ECHR found that Sigríður’s appointment of judges to the appellate court violated article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That article guarantees an individual’s right to a fair court trial. The implications are clearly ominous and the judges of the court responded by immediately putting a halt to their work amidst the legal uncertainty. All eyes were on Justice Minister Sigríður, who was in the hot seat.
Sigríður is part of the Independence Party, which has been a major coalition partner in three successive governments. That’s actually not something to brag about in this case since the first two collapsed because of scandals (first the Panama Papers and then a shitstorm involving who knew what about a notorious pedophile having his full civil rights restored).
A coalition of the stable
The current coalition is ostensibly led by the Left-Greens and their Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, but she has been severely criticized for taking a passive role compared to the former prime minister and current Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the Independence Party. He says he stood stalwartly by Sigríður through all of this and only accepted her decision to resign (or step aside, more on that later) with much regret. No one is really buying this.
The truth is the current government is based very firmly on the principle of not collapsing like the previous two. The idea to bring together the left and the right like this didn’t come out of thin air but bitter experience with previous attempts at forming stable governments in recent years. Stability has been the hallmark of the Independence Party for decades, so much so that they use it in campaign ads to this day without a hint of irony.
The feeling so far is that the Left-Greens have had to endure quite a bit more in this effort to keep things together than their partners on the right. Sigríður didn’t immediately resign after the ECHR ruling, rather there were reportedly tense meetings behind closed doors that ultimately culminated in a press conference where reporters harangued her about whether or not she was forced to leave her position or did so of her own free will.
You don’t simply step aside in Mordor
Neither she nor Bjarni Benediktsson nor Katrín Jakobsdóttir would comment on exactly what conversations took place or how to characterize them. Many are convinced Sigríður was forced to quit in order to appease angry elements within the Left-Greens who are unhappy with how the coalition government is working out in general. Despite the language used initially, that Sigríður was simply “stepping aside” temporarily to clear the air, it doesn’t seem she has a clear path back into government at the moment and in fact there is no such thing as a minister stepping aside, according to Icelandic law. You have to simply quit and hope they take you back at some point.
There will be elections and governments after this one and the Left-Greens will have to have something to show for their stewardship of this coalition. There are rumours that Katrín Jakobsdóttir and other key figures in the party plan to retire from politics to initiate a rebuilding period after this government comes to an end. Indeed, many are expecting the party to suffer a massive blow and lose some of their base to the new Socialist Party as well as the Social Democrats and perhaps even Pirates.
Whatever happens on that front, the uncertainty over the Court of Appeals remains. There is much talk of appealing the decision of the ECHR but it’s not clear what this would achieve other than cause more delays in dealing with the fallout. The court is at least back in session following Sigríður’s resignation, with a revised list of judges. The four appointed by Sigríður are now on indefinite leave and the court struggles on with 11 remaining judges and serious legal uncertainty.
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